Digital Orisha

Io combines two of Miami's biggest bugaboos

In the living room of David Font's Little Haiti house, a poster of Kali, the Hindu god of destruction, hangs above a music stand that displays the centerfold of a reclining Michael Jackson from the album Thriller. Idol meets icon; sacred meets pop. Inside Font's production room, an Akai sampler/sequencer towers above a floor crowded with cowbells, congas, and a two-headed Afro-Cuban drum, the batá. Here Font has embarked on an experiment that brings together the high-tech capacities of electronica with the sacred truths of orisha(Afro-Cuban religious) music.

Spinning as one-half of Satellite Lounge at the now-defunct South Beach club the Beehive, Font earned a place in the mythology of Miami's electronic music as Io, a name taken from a moon of Jupiter. Playing the batá at religious ceremonies, Font partakes in Santería circles as a son of Obatalá, the Afro-Cuban orisha associated with purity and righteousness. With his new label, Elegua Records, Font combines these two personas, launching sacred rhythms into the far reaches of electronic space.

Elegguá is a trickster god, and Font is the first to admit that mixing electronica with orisha music is tricky business. Batá drumming and digital sequencing run on different clocks: "The whole world of computers and the Net, that's overdose culture," he says. "Everything's fast; everything is always changing. When you sing in ocha [the cycle of sacred rhythms], you sing one song for half an hour."

This isn't your father's SanterĂ­a: David Font, a.k.a. Io, and Olympia Alfaro fuse Afro-Cuban beats with electronica
This isn't your father's SanterĂ­a: David Font, a.k.a. Io, and Olympia Alfaro fuse Afro-Cuban beats with electronica

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Earlier efforts to bring the saints into the consciousness of club dancers segregated the sacred from the slammin' -- amounting too often, in Font's opinion, to "salsa lite with house music." Even the best-known orisha track in clubland, the 1995 remix of La India's song for the female deities, "Yemaya and Ochun," alternates rather than layers the batá segments and the electronic effects of La India's Latin house.

Font looks to create a more complex layering. His own musical training follows the route he flew as a kid, growing up on the Puerto Rican airbus. Moving from the island to New York City, and eventually to Miami, brought the blue eyed blanquito into contact with batá masters. In Miami the do-it-yourself electronica scene opened a laboratory for experimenting with sacred rhythms in electronic form.

Mixing orisha and digital sound combines two of Miami's biggest bugaboos in a single track. Similar suspicions of lawlessness and abandon have plagued both Santería ceremonies and that ceremonial space of electronica: the rave. Local authorities seem to be equally afraid of the sacred dancers' embodiment of the gods (a.k.a. possession) and the ravers' escape from their bodies through dance (a.k.a Ecstasy).

As a member of both communities, Font can see the similarities: "Most of these raver kids, they take their pill, and they're standing in front of this twenty-foot sound system. They're surrounded by other kids packed on top of each other, and they're just off their heads with this music. It's the closest these kids will ever get to the toques de santos [the touch of the saints]."

For Font the comparison ends there: "When you start talking about the cosmology and the religion, nobody wants to hear that Oya is the wind and the storm. That's too esoteric. And there's no santero that's going to tell you that drugs are good for you."

Font's goal is not the religious conversion of the raver. He has his own demons to exorcise first: "I'm a mad scientist," he declares. "I've got these sounds in my head, and I want to hear what they sound like when they come out." The reference to Jamaican dub master the Mad Scientist is not a coincidence. Pressed for a category for his music, Font coins the term "Afro-Cuban dub." That affiliation is no coincidence, either. Although many critics decry Jamaican dub and dancehall as an oversimplified, overly electronic departure from the righteousness of reggae, others have argued that the roots of dub run even deeper than the roots of reggae. Ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel identifies in dub and dancehall the subtle pulse of long-preserved neo-African religious rhythms in Jamaica, such as pocomania and kumina. What can sound to untrained ears like repetitive bleeps evoke complex patterns for ears attuned to those rhythms' subtleties.

Subtlety seems to be what Font (under the name Io) is going for on Elegua Records' first release, Deep Surround. On some tracks the Caribbean presence seems to disappear altogether into an ambient survey of sound and silence, complete with water drops and echoing footsteps. At other moments, such as on the Jamaican homage "Minimum Dub," there is nothing but riddim stripped bare. As in much neo-African music, the bass line is suspended, forcing listeners to fill their own heads in anticipation of the missing beat. The suspended bass is then caught in the crossfire of a toy laser gun, a sly comment on the imagined perils of cyberspace for traditional sound. A wide swath of sound opens between a bass line so low you feel it before you hear it, and a Space Invaderslike treble that repeats a basic dancehall pattern. Then the bass cuts out altogether, leaving the dancehall pulse swinging all alone. The groove resounds in silence.

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